You don’t have to be an educator by vocation to understand that children must be proficient readers in order to learn. That’s why the legislature’s Read to Achieve program is a welcome approach to helping ensure kids aren’t simply promoted year after year when they haven’t mastered this basic skill. It’s not fair to the kids to doom them to hardship – even failure — if they can’t read well by the end of the third grade. But now the Read to Achieve program is the subject of debate and confusion when there really doesn’t need to be debate and confusion — if we simply let common sense prevail. JLF’s John Hood explains what’s amiss between the legislature’s intent with Read to Achieve, and its implementation by the Department of Public Instruction.

So where did the communication breakdown about Read to Achieve occur? To put it simply, DPI continued to treat a score at Level 3 or above to be a “passing grade” for the purposes of satisfying the promotion standard. That had been standard practice, after all, and the General Assembly had not specified the threshold for the Read to Achieve standard in its 2012 legislation. On the other hand, how could lawmakers have specified the standard in 2012? They didn’t know what the new tests and achievement levels would look like. They relied on DPI to adjust its administration of the standard to the design and results of the new exam.

The practical effect of this miscommunication was to designate far more North Carolina 3rd graders as needing remediation at summer reading camps than the state legislature had intended. Reeling from the potential cost and adverse public reaction, the State Board of Education decided to adopt a DPI recommendation to create five achievement levels rather than four — thus making an already complicated situation even more complicated, albeit with the defensive goal of targeting state resources to the below-basic students who most needed the help.

What should have happened instead — and what should occur for the 2013-14 tests and beyond — is that North Carolina should retain its four achievement levels but amend the 2012 legislation to specify that the promotion standard for 3rd graders will be Level 2 on the reading test, not Level 3. Once the vast majority of North Carolina 3rd graders meet it, the General Assembly could always revisit the issue and tighten the standard more if it wishes.